FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for January 2011: Marshall University. This public university in West Virginia has so many restrictive speech codes that it is difficult to choose just one for our Speech Code of the Month. But for now, we concern ourselves with Standard 3 of Marshall’s Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities. Standard 3 asserts, generally, that “Marshall University students and student groups respect and honor the human rights and dignity of other persons, groups and organizations.” Following this is a list of specific violations of Standard 3, which include:
- “Committing, conspiring to commit, or causing to be committed any act directed toward a specific person or persons with the intent and/or effect of causing physical or mental harm, injury, fear, stigma, disgrace, degradation, or embarrassment.”
- “[A]cts exhibiting prejudice and/or racism.”
- “Committing, conspiring to commit, or causing to be committed any act directed toward a specific person or persons with the intent and/or effect of stigmatizing, frightening, coercing, or demeaning that person.”
- “Incivility or disrespect of persons.”
- “Lewd, indecent, or obscene conduct or expression.”
I truly cannot think of another speech code that prohibits such a staggering amount of constitutionally protected speech. You can be punished for embarrassing someone. You can be punished for disrespecting someone. You can be punished for exhibiting prejudice, even perhaps in the form of an unpopular opinion on a controversial political or social issue. You can be punished for telling crude jokes. This policy covers so much speech that it seems there is very little speech for which Marshall University can’t punish you.
Legally speaking, of course, Marshall University can’t punish you for any of this, because it is a public university obligated to uphold the guarantees of the First Amendment. And as we warned college presidents across the country (including Marshall President Stephen Kopp) in a letter sent just before the close of 2010, student free speech rights are so clearly established that college administrators may face personal liability for monetary damages if they violate those rights.
For these reasons, Marshall University is our January 2011 Speech Code of the Month. If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code. If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network, which consists of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses. You also can add FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month Widget to your blog or website and help shed some much-needed sunlight on these repressive policies.